Charitable Giving to Religion Declines in 2011

July 13, 2012

After years of growth in the number of Americans who don’t attend church or don’t declare a religion, it had to happen. U. S. giving to churches and religious organizations actually declined in 2011. What’s more, it has declined in three of the last four years.

According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, whose annual report Giving USA is a statistical benchmark for the nonprofit sector, giving to religion in 2011 declined 1.7 percent in current dollars – 4.7 percent if adjusted for inflation – relative to giving in 2010. Don’t chalk it up to economic malaise; religion was one of just two charitable categories that declined in 2011, out of eleven categories overall. Charitable giving overall rose 4 percent during the year. So religion is losing ground relative to categories like education, human services, health, international affairs, arts, and the environment.

Still, don’t expect the lights at your friendly neighborhood church to go dark anytime soon. Despite its decline, religion is far and away the largest single category of charitable giving, accounting for $95.88 billion – 32 percent of the $298.42 billion gifted to all U. S. charities during 2011.

Giving to religion declined in three of the last four years, dropping in 2008 and 2009, posting a small gain in 2010, and declining again in 2011.

Is this connected to growth in the numbers of unchurched and nonreligious Americans, groups that, logic tells us, must be gaining their new members at the expense of churches and religions? Correlation is not causation, as your Statistics 101 prof used to say. But as Thomas W. Mesaros, Chair of the Giving Institute, told The NonProfit Times, “giving to religion, along with membership in certain mainline Protestant denominations, is declining, while the American population grows, on average, 1 percent every year. It might be too soon to call the drops in this particular category a trend, but I think they bear watching.”

Patrick M. Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, links the drop in giving to a very long-term trend toward disaffection from faith. “We have seen every generation going back to the Great Depression attends at a lesser rate than parents and grandparents. If they are not attending, they are not giving or giving as much.”

The multi-year decline in Americans’ giving to religion is a fact, even if the reasons why remain to be firmly established. So I’ll take this opportunity to speculate. I expect that most of the decline in giving to religion is attributable to the smaller fraction of Americans who claim a religious identity each year. But I wonder whether some portion of the drop (say, ten or twenty percent of it) might be attributable to another cause: public understanding that religious charities have an easier time attracting government support than they used to.

To the chagrin of secular organizations, President Obama has largely continued the Faith-Based Initiative introduced by the George W. Bush White House. State-level controversies over government support for religious organizations have attracted varying amounts of publicity. (In Florida, for example, a Council for Secular Humanism lawsuit aimed at stopping government support for religious organizations – support that is forbidden by the state’s constitution – has focused great attention on the funneling of state dollars into church-related charities.) In some areas, at least, I suspect that public awareness of government support for faith-based organizations might well be greater than the actual amount of public support religious charities are receiving. People who know that Uncle Sam and state agencies are doling out funds to religious charities – and especially, people who over-estimate these practices’ scope – may cut back on their giving to religious causes because they think government is picking up the slack.

Again, I’m speculating. I don’t have evidence for my hypothesis that donors are giving less to religion because they think an increasingly un-secular public sector is giving more. As far as I know, no one else does either -- nor is there evidence that this is not a real phenomenon. It sounds like a wonderful project for some enterprising social-science researcher with access to student labor and powerful analytical tools.

Gee, I hope Ryan Cragun reads my blogs!

Paul Clolery and Mark Hrywna, “2011 Giving Estimated at $298.42B: Religious Giving Erods while International Relief Jumps,” The NonProfit Times, July 1, 2012, pp. 1, 13-15.